A Visit to Essex Farm

What a day at Essex Farm! Mark (the farmer) is interesting, outspoken, provocative and downright inspiring. There were about 15 farmers in the group who came for the visit. I was easily the oldest by at least 20 years. That was good and bad. I could keep up with the younger folks, which was great, but I am not potential help for this large, flourishing farm.

It was heavy overcast and cold. The morning started with introductions: who we are, what are our dreams and goals, and on a scale of 1-10 how we are feeling today. Then we did calisthenics in the driveway, followed by raw corn and melons to suck down while preparing to tour the fields and pastures. I was not too great at jumping jacks or burpees, but even thinking about doing either warmed me up. I did fast and focused half-sun salutations and was just as warm as everyone else. Mostly women in the group, just two men. Mark carried his younger daughter on his back, and the two herding dogs came along.

There are huge fields under cultivation. I saw beautiful kales, kohlrabi, carrots, strawberries, celery. Other stuff I don’t remember. He told us the row are 30” on center, to work with the horse-drawn cultivating equipment. We stopped for a long pause eating fall raspberries (gotta plant 10-15 feet of these at home) and digging our hands into the most amazing dirt I’ve ever had my hands in. Much of the ground is under sprouting ground cover – a mix of buckwheat and something else I didn’t recognize, winter rye maybe. I didn’t get around to asking. He cut up a huge kohlrabi for us to share and then dug us carrots.

There is hardly a weed to be seen anywhere! When he talked to us about it though, he gave us a test to find the smallest weed out there. I picked a little galinsoga, maybe a half inch in spread with 2 leaves. Roots were about 1” long. Mark looked up at the group: “If your roots are branched, you FAIL!” He told us that weeds make his really crazy and that his goal is to control ALL weeds. The one in his hand was a thread of a seed/root about a half an inch long! Hand weeding won’t get those – too time intensive. His idea is to sprout all those weeds, then plow them under before they seed. And do it again and again and again and again and again, etc., until the land is clean of them. This requires planning, timing, the right weather, the right season – you get the idea. A gallant goal – and I was feeling overwhelmed.

Then we off to see some chickens, marching straight across those beautiful fields. OMG, my legs are short – how can I step in just the spaces between the rows of green and red cabbage, Brussels sprouts and other large brassicas, and keep up with long-legged, fast walking, 6’-6” Mark??

So much information to take in. We saw egg chickens, pigs with babies, milk cattle, beef cattle, pigs in the fields, sheep. We heard how often each type of animal needs to be moved to new ground, and how much ground a farm needs to keep all those animals healthy and well-fed. We heard about how many of each a farm would need to have (in Mark’s opinion) to support one full-time employee with responsibility for that animal. We heard about the problems that pigs cause the land because they wallow and the pros and cons of putting rings in their noses to keep them from wallowing. We heard about the project to cross some shaggy russet horned European beef cattle with black angus cattle to make a beef cow as hearty as the shaggy ones but tasting like the angus. Wish I’d brought my camera those shaggy cows were so attractive.

We met the gigantic horses the farm uses to do a lot of the plowing and cultivation. The biggest two – I missed their names – were spotted “paints” in black and white. I’ve been going to horse pulling competitions for 30 years, and this team, used only for plowing and such, were as big as any team I’ve ever seen compete.   My height at their shoulders, huge heads and necks arching over mine, strong and stocky legs, feet and hooves bigger than any human foot, even with big boots. There was also a stocky pony.

We got educated about “steel.” What equipment there is, how they use it, how to fix it and why they want everyone to learn how to weld. Stuff I never thought about. Mark showed us one machine that does weeding and soil fluffing. I think he called it “magic fingers.” One woman said her farm has one but doesn’t use it. He said they are starving themselves. Don’t deprive yourself of the tools you have.

It was around this time in the tour that he started talking about small vegetable farmers as making nothing but “vitamin water, you know that stuff that comes in the plastic bottle that Nestle or Coke makes?” He encouraged everyone to start thinking and dreaming “large.” I could see that everyone in the group was made uncomfortable by this statement, but he kept coming back to it over the next several hours – that vegetables alone are not enough. Cooperatives are not enough. Communes are not enough. Everything needs to come under one roof and really BIG! In his dream, the farm is big enough and prosperous enough to “grow” all of its energy needs, ideally free of fossil fuels. That means, all the power generation, all the livestock feed, all the fuel for the machinery, everything is “grown” on the farm. He also challenged us to look at the total energy “cost” of each activity. He has been studying all kinds of farming on large scale and his conclusion is that some conventional farming methods use less total energy than some clean “hippy” methods. He looks at all the energy – the number of hours it takes to do a task, using human labor or machinery, the cost of the “food” for the human or machine to do that task, the carbon footprint, more factors that I can’t remember. Very provocative.

While we were walking across the great acreage, he asked us to list the top ten things a first year farmer needs to know/have. Wish I could remember all of them. Some were “OCD,” confidence (but not overconfidence), initiative, the ability to work alone for long periods. For each trait, he asked to proposer how we would measure whether a person had learned it. At one point he suggested that we should all stop reading about farming, growing, husbanding, etc., and just start DOING stuff. Stop reading about it and learn how to DO IT! Find a real, live teacher and learn. Volunteer if they can’t pay you. Do it NOW.

Walking from field to field, we disconnected and reconnected the electric fences separating the various species. Although I kept up with the group well, I was walking carefully as this was the first time I’ve had shoes on in 6 months. My proprioception is not so good in shoes as it is barefoot and I was determined not to fall. So I was often the last through the fence, but there was always a young woman there, waiting to assist. Not needed, but oh, so nice. I did not fall, although at the one stream crossing, I chose poorly about where to cross and ended up with mud over the tops of my shoes. I laughed as I squelched my way out, and said to one of the others: “This would not have mattered had I been barefoot.” But the fields are rough up there, not soft like the fields at 9 Mile Farm, and I could not have undertaken that several mile walk without shoes.

He asked us to share outstanding first year farmer experiences. One shared managing her farm while the farmer was on vacation. I shared rescuing a toddler from an attack by a crazy rooster. I then shared what I still consider my mistake in not killing that rooster right then and there. All agreed that I learned something valuable. Mark said: “Next story should not have a moral.” LOL!

As we were walking from the pigs to the sheep, it started to rain. But the rain could not obscure the marvelous view of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains beyond. We walked back to the farmhouse to have lunch. He invited us indoors on condition that we leave everything cleaner than we found it. Sharing of ideas and experiences continued around the lunch table. I discovered that another of the women was a recovering attorney. Very brave person to take on farming after 15 years of being a litigator in corporate country. I wanted to give her a hug, but when the group broke up everyone was running every which way because some had to catch the ferry back to Vermont and timing was important – about a one mile walk.

Mark shared his experiences of maintaining a marriage and raising children while working on a project as large as Essex Farm.   He talked about how many people he wished he could provide viable (meaning living wage) work for. He asked us to think about the economies of scale and the production and conservation of energy. He is going to be giving a TEDtalk soon, and talked a bit about that. He talked about living a life in balance – he goes windsurfing when he is not farming – and about the necessity of finding something to do with oneself that eliminates the constant background of low level stress that imbues much of our society. He said he was 42 years old. I complimented him on having discovered that about 20 years before I did. He said he wasn’t beginning to done yet.

On the way out the door, he told us we could take as much corn and melons as we wanted, and tomatoes, too, if we weren’t already inundated with them. He also had a keg of a good local beer he asked us to empty. So I came home with 6 ears of corn, a half gallon of beer, a half-gallon of milk and a head buzzing with stuff. Two younger farmers from 9 Mile came with me. I hope I get to hear their thoughts on the visit after they’ve had time to process it.

I understand now why almost everyone I’ve met who’s visited Essex Farm wants to work there. Very hard work, very great dreaming, endless rewards.


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